Authors: Lauren Gallagher
Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction
It took me a second to figure out where she was going with this, and when I did, I had to bite back my frustration. “Mom, this is—”
“Dustin, what happened when the bird’s wings were healed?” She turned toward Blue, then looked at me again, and her voice was soft when she asked, “What happened every time?”
I released my breath. Hadn’t we had
conversation a million times before too? “I know, Mom. They flew away.”
“Every last one of them.” She gestured at the other end of the barn. “And don’t you think for a second this one won’t do the very same thing.” She wagged a finger at me in that playfully stern way she often did. “I know you, son. You see someone who’s been hurt, and you want to help them just like you help the horses and the birds.”
Gaze fixed on Blue, I said, “I don’t rescue people.”
“Maybe not,” she said, and I knew damn well she didn’t believe me. “You have a good heart, but be careful. Or else you’re the one who gets hurt, just like you always do.”
I didn’t argue with her. She’d never buy it if I told her I was curious about Amy, but not in the way she was convinced I was. So I just kept my mouth shut.
Mom watched Blue for a moment. Then she asked, “Why
you take these two if they’re not ready, anyway? You barely have time for the horses you’re being
to work with, and even when you sell them, these rescues never pay for themselves. It would have been a wasted trip, but that’s cheaper than making the trip and bringing back two horses you
“You know McBride,” I said without looking away from the horse. “If he’s stuck with them longer than he wants to be, he’ll sell them to the first open checkbook that comes along.”
“Because he’s running a business, son,” Mom said. “Just like you are.”
I glared at her again. We went through this—I went through it with
my parents—every time I brought a rescue home, regardless of how ready the horse was to be turned around and sold. Shifting my attention back to Blue, I said, “And if he’s desperate to sell them, there’s a good chance these two would either wind up crippling some inexperienced 4-H kid or going to a packing plant.”
“Or you’ll get them and not be able to get rid of them.” Mom gestured down the aisle, and I didn’t have to ask which stall she was indicating. “And next thing you know, you’re stuck with—”
“What can I do with Chip?” I asked. “I can’t sell him. Not yet.”
“I know you can’t,” she said softly.
We fell silent for a moment. She was preaching to the choir, and we both knew it. We also both knew she’d no sooner turn away the rescues than I would. I hadn’t, after all, come by my penchant for saving animals—or people—by accident.
“You have a good heart, son, and it’s in the right place.” She put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “But you
save them all.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. About the time I’d brought those two home last year, the wound was still plenty raw from the nine-year-old we’d had to put down over the winter because the crippling damage to his feet and legs turned out to be permanent.
I knew damn well I couldn’t save them all.
Well, two days in and this job was off to a fantastic start. Not much different from the job I’d left behind, I supposed, though Sam didn’t doubt my ability with the horses. He made sure I knew how inept I was at interacting with clients, promoting and expanding the business, and anything else that didn’t directly involve the horses.
That was the one place he didn’t dare say anything. He knew horses like I knew business, so he wisely shut his mouth when it came down to that. Here, I was paid for my expertise in opening and closing gates, picking up horseshit and getting thirty-seven horses fed before six thirty in the morning.
And don’t you forget it,
I thought, throwing a narrow-eyed glance at my new boss’s back as he and his father walked out of the barn.
Dustin hadn’t said it outright, but he didn’t like me. His eyes shouted what his mouth held back. Either that or he just looked down his nose at any lowly farmhand. Heaven forbid he offer the most basic respect to someone who made her living getting her hands dirty.
And yet he’d been cordial, even friendly, when we met. At least until he did that abrupt about-face while he was showing me around. I still didn’t get what on earth that was all about. Maybe stress, maybe moodiness, maybe something else that I didn’t want to deal with anymore after eleven goddamned years of it.
For the hundredth time, I considered packing up and heading home. There were things there I wasn’t yet ready to face, but being here wasn’t helping me settle everything in my head so I could face everyone and everything back home.
But, no. Unsettling boss or not, I was still more likely to clear my head here than at home. I hadn’t even begun working through all of that crap. I didn’t have to like Dustin—though I sure didn’t mind looking at him—to get through the next few weeks or months or however long I wound up staying here.
I could deal with him. And maybe, just maybe, I could deal with all this crap in my head.
The routine of a farmhand didn’t change much. Just minor variations in feeding, cleaning, turning out, repairing, and staying out of the way of paying clients. Out to the pastures, back to the barn, out to the pastures, to the barn again.
On my way back in from my umpteenth walk out to the pastures, I stopped. Standing here on this gently sloping hill, I had a virtually unobstructed view of better than half of the open-sided indoor arena.
The arena in which Dustin, probably oblivious to me, worked an Appaloosa mare I’d brought in from outside maybe half an hour ago.
Lord help me when I saw him on a horse, indeed. Oh my God.
My mouth watered. There was something about a good-looking man on a horse that made me weak in the knees. Especially a horse that was moving at a beautifully slow jog, one that made the rider’s hips tilt to one side, pause, the other, pause.
Good God. Drool.
I made myself look elsewhere and went back to my list of tasks. As the morning turned into afternoon, I turned horses out and brought them in. Fed them, cleaned their stalls, fed them again.
Interacting with the horses was beyond weird. And alarming. If Dustin was keeping me at arm’s length, I was keeping the horses ten times as far from myself. So I wasn’t just burned out on the horses I’d worked with at my own facility. I couldn’t connect with any of them. No matter what they did—whether it was infuriating bad manners or an adorable display of playfulness—I felt absolutely nothing, and every time I knew I should have felt something but didn’t, my heart sank a little deeper in my chest. What if my attachment to horses was gone forever?
No. It wasn’t. It was still there. It had to be, and I was desperate to bring it back. Somehow, I would, and that was all there was to it. That was part of why I was here. That, and trying to cope with Sam’s death, and I wasn’t sure which of those two things seemed less promising right now.
In between my various tasks on the farm, I took advantage of every chance I had to interact with every horse I could. Even if I was just turning them out or bringing them back in, I petted them. Talked to them. Gave them the odd treat just to see their expressions. When a yearling grabbed his own lead rope and tried to play tug-of-war, I tugged back. When I took a mare and weanling toward the gate leading from their pasture, I’d let the mare jog because then her baby would get excited, trot ahead, and then buck a few times while he waited for us to catch up.
And still I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. More than once, I wondered if I’d have better luck waking up Sam so we could talk our issues through.
I buried my frustration and kept working. Horses in, horses out. Fed, stalls cleaned, fed again. Fences fixed, boards replaced. Horses in, horses out. As mechanical as my last job had become, and I wasn’t getting any less detached.
Halfway between the morning and evening feedings, I brought a pair of two-year-olds in from their pasture and put them into their respective stalls.
Dustin had Star, the filly he’d brought in the day we met, out on the cross-ties. He attached a pair of long, coiled lines to either side of her snaffle bit, and then put them through the brass rings on the weathered old surcingle cinched snugly around her middle. Star chomped her bit nervously and fidgeted, but all the while, Dustin spoke softly to her and stroked or patted her whenever his hands were free.
That horse had been mistreated. Even if I hadn’t known about Star’s history, there were no two ways about it. Everything scared her, from a shadow on the ground to Dustin coiling the lead rope’s slack in his hands. It didn’t just startle her like it would a flighty baby or a hyper, nervous horse; the slightest stimulus made her jerk away from Dustin and try to get away, and even when she stopped, she was a shaking mess. Eye whites showing, nostrils flaring, legs shaking.
I watched from the barn as Dustin led Star out to the outside arena. When the gate opened, it squeaked on its hinges, and Star came unglued: she balked, jerking back on the lead. She hit the end of the lead rope and freaked out even more, and when she threw her head, she just about knocked him off his feet. As his hat landed in the dirt at their feet, I cringed on her behalf, expecting her to get a face full of closed fist for her trouble.
But Dustin didn’t smack her. He tugged hard enough on the lead to get Star’s attention, and she stopped. Immediately, she pulled her head away and cowered, her legs still shaking and her eye whites visible from here.
Dustin spoke softly to her, offering his hand palm up. After a moment of hesitation, and all the while eyeing him warily, Star stretched her neck out and sniffed his hand. He slowly, cautiously reached for her neck with his other hand, and as I watched, the mare shifted from agitated and scared to calm and quiet. Affectionate, even. He petted and talked to her until she was well past settled down, until she rested her forehead against his shoulder.
And only after he’d long since calmed her did he—carefully and never taking his eyes off the horse—reach down to pick up his hat off the dusty ground. Star snorted at it, body tensing like she was going to freak out all over again, so he held out the hat. She inched toward it, then nudged it with her nose. Again. Nothing scary happened, so she tried eating it, at which point he laughed and took the hat out of her reach. In a smooth, extra-slow motion, he put his hat back on, and, rather than freaking out, Star tried to eat it again.
The Jekyll and Hyde I thought I’d seen the day we met was absent. Completely. Maybe he just wasn’t great at interacting with people, but with a horse, especially one as jumpy as Star, he was even-keeled and calm.
And while I may not have felt much for the horses these days, something fluttered and tingled in my chest as I watched him calm her and coax her into the arena. There was just something about a man with a quiet hand and unwavering patience with an animal that had always made me swoon, and my heart beat now in a way I didn’t think it ever would again.
Letting my gaze drift from the black hat to the dusty jeans, I realized it wasn’t just his interactions with Star that had my heart doing funny things. Heat rushed into my cheeks, and I quickly turned away and went back to my to-do list.
Not that walking away got him out of my mind. Even after I’d gone through the rest of my tasks and had finished the early evening feeding, leaving me free for a few hours before the late-night feeding, I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering, and it kept wandering right back to that moment between Dustin and Star.
Maybe I’d jumped the gun with him. Sure, he’d been moody the day we met, and he hadn’t been terribly friendly with me since, but it wasn’t like I’d been all that warm myself. Maybe we just needed to get used to each other. Hell, I had no idea what needed to happen, but my gut told me that the Dustin I’d surreptitiously watched earlier today wasn’t the Dustin I’d convinced myself to dislike.
Walking down the barn aisle, lost in my thoughts and not sure where I was even going, I had to admit I was having a harder and harder time disliking him. In fact, if I’d been in a better place emotionally—if being in a numb void even counted as a place at all, bad or good—I probably would have been doing more than just thinking non-stop about him. What could I say? A good-looking man who had a way with animals, that had always been a recipe for me to trip over my own feet and get tongue-tied and—
An instant too late, sharp movement and a reddish flash of motion from the corner of my eye turned my head. Before I could get out of the way, Chip’s teeth closed around my arm.
I yelped in pain and surprise, instinctively swiping at him with my free hand, but found nothing except empty space.
Rubbing my arm gingerly—there was no blood, and I could still move, so it wasn’t serious—I looked over the stall door. Against the back wall, the chestnut gelding cowered even more than Star had earlier. Head down, legs shaking so bad I thought they’d collapse under him, he watched me with wide eyes. His heart must have been going ninety miles an hour, and I could only imagine what kind of hell he thought was about to rain down on him.
My own heart kicked into high gear as I glanced up and down the aisle. I hadn’t seen Dustin in a while, and John had gone into town not twenty minutes ago. This was probably a bad idea on a few levels, especially the level of someone who didn’t want to get fired
yet, but what else could I do?